We shouldn’t have been surprised. John Smit and Ruan Pienaar are splendid rugby players and their metamorphosis took shape in compelling fashion yesterday.
Clinton van der Berg writes for the Times online that Smit had been asked to play tighthead, the toughest, most technical position in a rugby XV.
Pienaar, in turn, had been designated to transfer his skills to flyhalf, where supreme demands are made on a player’s instinct, vision and attacking skill.
Both passed the test.
Smit, for so long the mainstay of the Bok hooking position, was untried as a prop and an obvious target for the Welsh to attack. Buckle the tighthead, goes the idiom, and you’re on your way.
But his back stayed true and straight yesterday and he scrummaged with vigour and power. Not once was he exposed as the Bok pack held up against a team known for its grunt in the tight five.
Moreover, Smit’s relish for the looser aspects of the game were also appreciated as he threw himself about, kept the tackle count up and threw a particularly refined pass to Victor Matfield. So much for the demands on the No3 extending to no more than dictating the odds in the tight.
Smit earned his badge of honour in more ways than one. He copped a fierce crack on the bridge of his nose just after the hour mark that turned his face into a mask of blood. He trooped off to get repairs and promptly made his way back minutes later. Welcome to the dark world of the tighthead, skipper.
Pienaar stepped into the No10 jersey as if to the manner born. His game was characterised by long, raking kicks, but when he did chance his luck he came close to scoring in the first half. Certainly, his heads-up, have-a- go style kept the Welsh on their toes and they had a job on their hands shutting him down.
Pienaar also showed encouraging signs defensively. He’ll face better teams and faster loose forwards, but on the evidence of yesterday, he will cherish the opportunity to test his skills against them.
People may carp about the narrow nature of the scoreline and SA’s difficulty in breaking down the Welsh defence, but this was rugby based on structure and common sense. When your two most important positions are designated to rookies, safety-first is the mantra.
The irony is that while Adi Jacobs and Jean de Villiers, the centres, were the try-scorers, they weren’t set free by Pienaar. It was a day in which the backs were kept on a tight leash, particularly with the Welsh contesting every ball ferociously.
Coach Peter de Villiers and his assistants will no doubt have reflected last night on an experiment that went particularly well. Scotland loom next week and they will offer another set of challenges, as will England.
But those are challenges for another day, another week.
For now, South Africa appear to have found their flyhalf. And the tighthead ain’t bad either.Tweet